State to pay non-Orthodox rabbis

A-G office agrees to pay wages of non-Orthodox rabbis serving their communities, as with Orthodox rabbis.

ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Attorney-General’s Office announced on Tuesday that in accordance with a recommendation from the High Court of Justice, the state has agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis serving in regional councils, just as it does for Orthodox rabbis.
Until now, non-Orthodox religious leaders have not been recognized as rabbis and their communities have had to pay their salaries through money raised by membership dues. The wages of Orthodox rabbis are paid by the Religious Services Ministry.
Anat Hoffman, executive director of the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, described the decision as “a historic day” for the state and a “significant step toward bringing pluralism to Israel.”
Political reaction came quickly, with members of the religious establishment criticizing the decision while representatives of left-leaning parties welcomed the announcement.
The office of Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi (Shas) said that if the minister will, in the future, be forced to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis, he will ask Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for permission to submit his resignation.
MK Uri Ariel (National Union) said in a statement that the attorney- general and the High Court were “continuing to advance anti- Jewish policies causing serious injury to the values of Israel.”
Ariel added that the agreement to equate “modernist rabbis” who “receive rabbinic ordination in their own eyes” and the leaders of Orthodox Jewry is an embarrassing and saddening decision that will be “recorded with shame.”
MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) said the attorney-general’s decision was “crass” and “harmful to the soul of the Jewish people,” and that he was considering proposing legislation in the Knesset to explicitly define the term “rabbi.” He said that the work of the Reform and Conservative movements is social and cultural in nature, and has to be defined as such.
Labor chairwoman and head of the opposition Shelly Yacimovich welcomed the decision, calling it an important achievement for the Reform Movement and a step that advances pluralism and strengthens ties between the State of Israel and world Jewry, particularly in the US.
Yacimovich added that the Labor party “respects Orthodox Judaism but believes that there is a place for the expression of all streams of Judaism.”
Tuesday’s decision came following a hearing in the High Court earlier this month on a petition filed in 2005 by Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer and the Reform Movement in Israel, among others, demanding that rabbis of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism who serve as heads of communities be paid by the state.
“This is a very important step toward achieving religious freedom in Israel for all its inhabitants,” Gold told The Jerusalem Post.
“There is no patent on how to be Jewish,” she continued.
“Pluralism has always been a part of Jewish practice which we see in the Talmud, which always records minority opinions. And today, the majority of organized Jewry belongs to the progressive movement. Orthodox[y] is not the majority.”
Gold added that she is not trying to change the way anyone practices Judaism if it is right for them “but [she] believe[s] that every stream’s expression of Judaism is legitimate. Citizens of this country pay taxes for religious services and so the money has to be distributed according to their differing needs.”
Prominent national-religious leader Rabbi Benny Lau also weighed in on the issue and told the Post that in his opinion, the state should provide funds directly to all religious congregations in the country without distinction, “be they Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Muslim or Christian.”
He added that the provision of religious services should be turned over to communities and taken out of the hands of the Religious Services Ministry and local religious councils.
Communities should have to pass an eligibility test, he said.
The justices presiding over the case – Elyakim Rubinstein, Hanan Melcer and Uzi Vogelman – instructed the Attorney-General’s Office to reconsider its position on the matter, which until now had opposed the idea, resulting in Tuesday’s announcement.
“This is a big turning point in the history of the state,” Hoffman told the Post.
“It’s one small step for Miri Gold, but a giant leap toward the goal of bringing pluralism, tolerance and democratic values to Israel.”
According to the justices’ request and the attorney-general’s decision, a non-Orthodox rabbi will be termed “a rabbi of a non-Orthodox community” and will be entitled to wages equal to those paid to Orthodox rabbis.
Regional councils, which are responsible for paying the salaries of rabbis in their jurisdiction, will now be allowed to employ non- Orthodox rabbis for any communities that request one, and the money will be funnelled to the regional councils through the Culture and Sport Ministry, a compromise agreed upon by the petitioners.
The Reform Movement says that there are another 14 non- Orthodox rabbis across the country who will now be able to begin receiving wages from the state.
Hoffman added that the campaign for state-paid non-Orthodox rabbis had been heavily supported by Diaspora Jewry and that on this issue, “Israel is too important to be left to Israelis.”
The Diaspora community was “the engine making this happen,” she said.
Both Hoffman and Gold stated that the movement will now turn its attention to lobbying for non- Orthodox rabbis to be eligible to be employed as neighborhood and city rabbis of the state.
Hoffman also said that in her opinion, and “unknown to the Orthodox themselves,” the ruling will be of benefit to Orthodox Jews in Israel, in that it will create competition for adherents and will motivate the Orthodox establishment to be flexible and creative in its approach to Judaism.